“Homo economicus” is all about rational self-interest, or so economics text books would have us believe. But is that really true? Is there no place for other factors in our economic and professional lives?
This story starts with a story that tells it all. I was a biologist and a starting writer, in a professional fix. Jammed in between three jobs, there was no room for me to contribute to the world through my creative gift. It felt like I was dying on the inside. A friend of mine pointed me to a book by Lans Bovenberg, a prestigious prize-winning Dutch economist. After reading the book, I knew here was someone I could synergize with. So I wrote Lans a letter, and to my surprise he invited me for a talk. Synergy happened. We came up with an idea to write a book together. Great! But how was I to find time to work on the book?
The solution to this dilemma came when Lans decided to hire me for one day a week during two years as a post-doc. This made it possible for me to temporarily reduce some of my other duties. It has to be said that the circumstances that allowed Lans to hire me were rather providential, but still: why would he take this chance on a starting writer like myself? It felt like heaven to me. It was only later that I realized that this act was completely in line with Lans’ view of what economics is all about.
Our economic life is a big part of our lives. How coherent is it for someone who is a loving parent, for instance, to suddenly transform into a calculating and self-optimizing “homo economicus” in the professional sphere? Still, this type of incoherence is what the “private life” vs “professional life” dichotomy seems to encourage. Can love not be a part of the professional and economic life? Lans Bovenberg, for one, thinks it can.
Economics, he says, is not, as many - if not most - people think, about money. Economics is about relationships, about people working together. Money is there to facilitate these relationships. Money is trust. Money facilitates economic love.
Love, however, is not a simple reality. For example, a baby may love its parents, but that love is primarily a receiving love, a need-love. Also, the love between friends is not the same as romantic love, or as the sacrificial love of parents for their children. In the same way, Lans says, economic life has different types of love. Some people may be in a position to sustain others self-sacrificially, but others are just in need of sustenance. Others may complement each other with different talents, and need each other in that way. Still others may just be helping each other out with different favors.
The collaboration between Lans and I, people with very different backgrounds, was not always a breeze. There were misunderstandings, and it was a search to find a format and language that would suit our message. In the end, we came up with a creative format: a novel called Win Win Win. Why a novel? Mainly for didactical reasons. The three main characters in the novel have a deep personality, but also represent three different types of economic love. The main character Miriam was inspired by “eros” or “need-love”. Claudio, a second main character with southern-European roots was inspired by “philia” or “friendship-love”. Finally, Patience, a young lady of Ghanaian descent, was inspired by “agape” or “gift-love”. Ona a more philosophical notes, each of these characters also received inspiration from the modern, classical, and Christian view of the human being respectively, which are explained in my philosophical booklet Freedom in Quarantine. In this way the main characters convey a rich palette of different personality and meaning.
Perhaps more importantly, the story as a whole reflects on the dynamics of how differences between people can collide or be constructive. Relationships are not always a rose garden, but if we manage to deal with differences constructively, these can become a real blessing.
Overall, the story has become a “mirror” for us to look into. What about the main characters do you recognize in yourself and in others? In which way does that challenge your approach to professional life? How do you deal with challenges in your relationships with others? These are some of the questions the book raises.
To me, the best way to read this book is in the context of relationships of people that care for each other and want to grow together. That can be schools or universities, but also reading clubs; it may even be something for parents to do with their late-teenage child. Professional life is not wholly outside of our personal formation, and this book is providing an opportunity to show and discuss just that.
As has hopefully become clear, Lans has applied his philosophy to me by giving me the opportunity to write Win Win Win. I have in turn tried to “pay it forward” by involving Manon Blanke, a student of mine, who in this way was able to contribute a valuable insider perspective on student life, and publish her first book in the process. It is our hope that we can in this way contribute to a “small reset” in many people’s economic life, and generally make our professional lives a more loving environment.